ArchaeoCafé Podcast – Episode 2-17 – Questions about quartzite: An interview with Alejandro Prieto

hosted by Otis Crandell and Tommy Ng

In this episode we talk with Alejandro Prieto about the use of quartzite in Europe during the Palaeolithic. We also discuss topics such as the societies who inhabited the Cantabrian Region during the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic and the methods used in petroarchaeology.

Listen to this episode online:



Some useful terminology and links

Middle Palaeolithic
The second subdivision of the Palaeolithic (or Old Stone Age) as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. During this period, archaic humans including Homo sapiens neanderthalensis appeared and flourished all over the world. Hand axes continued in use, but a new kind of stone tool kit called the Mousterian was created, which included purposefully prepared cores and specialized flake tools. People first began to take part in long-distance trade between groups for rare commodities and raw materials during the Middle Palaeolithic. As with many general categories of ancient history, the exact dates of the period vary by region.

Upper Palaeolithic
The third and last subdivision of the Palaeolithic. It is preceded by the Middle Palaeolithic and followed by the Mesolithic or Neolithic (depending on the region). According to some theories this period coincided with the appearance or widespread occurrence of many modern behavioural characteristics of modern humans – for example, art, burials, extensive long distance trade, composite tools. This period is mostly associated with anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens sapiens (although there is overlap with the previous and following periods in different region). Although the exact age of this period varies by location, it is generally between 50,000 and 10,000 years before present. This period coincides with the Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest phase of the last glacial period.

A hard, non-foliated metamorphic rock which was originally pure quartz sandstone. Sandstone is converted into quartzite through heating and pressure usually related to tectonic compression within orogenic belts. The term quartzite is also sometimes used for very hard but unmetamorphosed sandstones that are composed of quartz grains thoroughly cemented with additional quartz. Such sedimentary rock has come to be described as orthoquartzite to distinguish it from metamorphic quartzite, which is sometimes called metaquartzite to emphasize its metamorphic origins. As a knapped tool material, quartzite is generally very durable and usually produces a conchoidal fracture but is coarse grained and requires a lot of force to knap.

A durable hard layer of surface (or near surface) soil formed when surface soil, sand, and gravel are cemented by dissolved silica. It is a hard and resistant material, and though different in origin and nature, appears similar to quartzite. Silcrete is common in the arid regions of Australia and Africa.

A branch of petrology (itself a sub-field of geology) that focuses on detailed descriptions of rocks – including the mineral content and the textural relationships within the rock.

knap (verb)
The shaping of conchoidal fracturing stone (for example, flint, obsidian, quartzite) through the process of lithic reduction to manufacture stone tools, strikers for flintlock firearms, or to produce flat-faced stones for building or facing walls, and flushwork decoration. Adjective: knappable

expedient lithic tool
A crude flake utilized for a specific task once or a few times and then discarded. Tools that are kept or intended to be kept for repeated use are often referred to as “curated tools”.


Selected reading

Lithic raw material in the Cantabrian region: Dialectical relationship between flint and quartzite in the Palaeolithic record
by Alejandro Prieto, Alvaro Arrizabalaga, and Iñaki Yusta
Journal of Lithic Studies, 2021, Vol. 8(1), 32 p.

From petrographic analysis to stereomicroscopic characterisation: A geoarchaeological approach to identify quartzite artefacts in the Cantabrian Region
by Alejandro Prieto, Iñaki Yusta, and Alvaro Arrizabalaga
Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 2020, Vol. 12, article number 32.

Defining and Characterizing Archaeological Quartzite: Sedimentary and Metamorphic Processes in the Lithic Assemblages of El Habario and El Arteu (Cantabrian Mountains, Northern Spain)
by Alejandro Prieto, Iñaki Yusta, and Alvaro Arrizabalaga
Archaeometry, 2019, Vol. 61(1), p. 14-40.

Stones in Motion: Cost units to understand flint procurement strategies during the Upper Palaeolithic in the south-western Pyrenees using GIS
by Alejandro Prieto, and others
Journal of Lithic Studies, 2016, Vol. 3(1), p. 133-160.

Petrological characterisation of the “Tertiary quartzites” from the site of Troisdorf-Ravensberg (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany): First insights in Middle Palaeolithic outcrop exploitation
by Alejandro Prieto, Iñaki Yusta, Andreas Pastoors, and Erich Claßen
Quartär, 2019, Vol. 66, p. 33-50

Pilot study experiments sourcing quartzite, Gunnison Basin, Colorado
by Bonnie L. Pitblado, Carol Dehler, Hector Neff, Stephen T. Nelson
Geoarchaeology, 2008, Vol. 23(6), p. 742-778.

Discriminating Quartzite Sources Petrographically in the Upper Gunnison Basin, Colorado: Implications for Paleoamerican Lithic-Procurement Studies
by Cody L. Dalpra & Bonnie L. Pitblado
PaleoAmerica, 2016, Vol. 2(1), p. 22-31.

Novel use of cathodoluminescence to identify differences in source rocks for Late Paleoindian quartzite tools
by Robert Legg, Joyce Neilson, and Scott Demel
Archaeometry, 2020, Vol. 62, p. 875-887.

Silcrete: An Australian perspective
Graham Taylor and Richard A. Eggleton
Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, 2017, Vol. 64, p. 987-1016.

definition of quartzite
by S. Robertson
in the book “BGS Rock Classification Scheme, Volume 2: Classification of metamorphic rocks” published by the British Geological Survey in 1999. page 4.


About Alejandro Prieto

Dr. Prieto is a researcher at the University of the Basque Country. His research focuses on the Palaeolithic period in Cantabria (northern Spain) and the Rhine Valley, quarrying processes in the Palaeolithic (particularly at Troisdorf-Ravensberg, Germany), and the use of quartzite as a knappable material. His research is aimed at understanding past raw material acquisition, distribution and management mechanisms of lithic raw materials in the Rhine Valley and in Cantabrian Region. He often makes use of petrographic methods to characterise raw materials and artefacts. Alejandro is an editor of the Journal of Lithic Studies and Revista Arkeogazte.





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